It's parmigiano-reggiano, but not as you know it. Not only is it Slow Food Presidia endorsed, it's also handmade from the milk of a rare breed of white Modenese curled-horn cattle, then aged for 36 months and served as "air" (think foam but more ethereal). Its fleeting, sweet, rich umami intensity is part of a dish called "five textures and tastes of Parmesan" that includes a velvety 18-month cream accented with ricotta and a 40-month frico, or cheese crisp.
This sort of inventiveness characterizes the compelling cuisine served by chef Massimo Bottura at his intimate, 28-seat Osteria Francescana restaurant in the northern Italian city of Modena. His style is deeply wedded to the traditional produce of Emilia-Romagna but with a distinctly progressive riff and sensibility far from the rusticity of a conventional osteria. The culinary world is starting to take note. This year, Bottura was called the "best Italian chef of the present and future" by his former mentor Alain Ducasse, and the two-Michelin-star Osteria Francescana now ranks sixth on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list, where it is the highest Italian entry.
Bottura, who likes to call his food "a reinvention of the flavors of my youth interpreted through the avant-garde," thrives on keeping the palate guessing with dishes that confound expectations. Most edgy is an iced "puddle" of oyster juice that diners crack open to reveal raw prawns and slivers of citarri (a local specialty similar to seabass) lightly licked by smoke. Then there's the meltingly unctuous Po River eel, marinated in a syrup made from whole apples known as saba. Bottura also serves a bollito misto (boiled-meat platter) inspired by the New York City skyline.
His highly creative take on terroir is best expressed in a new dish that breaks the boundaries between salty and sweet. Entitled "the potato that wants to be a truffle," it's a sweet potato filled with hazelnuts, vanilla foam and lashings of black-truffle shavings. "It's a dish that conveys optimism," says Bottura. In fact most of his menu does. This is art-house dining made fun and deliciously accessible. See osteriafrancescana.it